If I Were Preaching, King David, Narrative Lectionary, Psalm 51

A Little Dirt

“A little dirt never hurt anyone,” declared Mrs. Toler, our Girl Scout leader. She was a science and math teacher at St. Agnes School and had daughters of her own. She broke through the all-indoors reign of the longtime troop leader, the terrifying Miss Stebbins, and took us camping. We made donuts out of biscuit dough by boiling them in hot oil over a campfire, burning hot and joyfully sweet after we rolled them in powdered sugar. I can call up the aroma and flavor of hamburger cooked over the same fire to add to our spaghetti sauce. Mrs. Toler knew what she was doing.

She brushed off our concerns about outdoor eating and sleeping, confidently.

When I became a woman and a mother, I carried her message into parenting. “A little dirt never hurt anybody.” I imagined myself as laid back, non-neurotic (ha!) and just generally hip to the idea that roughing it can’t kill you.

By which I mean I didn’t force a lot of unnecessary bathing on my children.

Then I contracted an auto-immune disease and became much more concerned about the hygiene of everyone in my immediate surroundings.

All of which means I am a much stricter parent to my step-son than I ever was to the older three. If he goes to wash his hands and comes back too soon, I demand to inspect them. I know some moms who love the smell of “I just played outside for too long” little boy. Maybe you know what a boy’s dirty hands feel like. They have texture, seem layered, almost. When you slide your thumb across the skin, it sticks.

“Go back and use soap.”

Sometimes my heart feels like those hands, a good heart underneath it all, but layered with the smudges of little hurts inflicted by others, the silt of guilty self-knowledge and the griefs-turned-crust shielding the tender parts.

“Create in me a clean heart.”

Psalm 51 asks for God’s assistance in heart renewal. It’s ascribed to David and associated with the aftermath of his affair with Bathsheba and his plot against her husband. As kathrynzj said in her sermon today, David managed to break about 50% of the commandments in just this one series of escapades. Nathan the prophet manages to convince him of his guilt, and David repents, hoping to rebuild his relationship with God.

Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.

(Psalm 51:10-11, Common English Bible)

hand washing heartWe don’t know if King David actually wrote all the psalms, and there are plenty of scholars who think psalms came later, during and after the Babylonian exile, long after his time. But there is a strong association between David and this particular Psalm, as if even the intellectual among us can’t quite bear to part the two. This iconic figure is tender and tough, faithful and flagrant, loving and libidinous, warlike and woeful. He struggles to live up to his call, and when he fails, he comes back to God and asks for help. 

Even if a little dirt never hurt anybody permanently, letting it build up creates complications. It may seem like nothing will ever be the same, and maybe it won’t be exactly. Think of David, getting honest with himself about the ways he messed up not just his own life. A clean heart doesn’t come out of nowhere; it’s not a new heart. A renewed heart comes through the effort of being honest with God and with yourself.

Start at the sink. Lather up. Give all the things covering you to the One who always loved you, even when She dearly wished you would use the soap.

If I Were Preaching, Luke, Reflectionary, Revised Common Lectionary

The Shrewd Third Grader

old-navy-fleeceIt was chilly this morning, but The Boy got dressed as he has every morning this school year, in those long athletic shorts and a t-shirt. At about ten minutes to Leave for the Bus O’Clock, I suggested a jacket might be appropriate. He stuck his head out the front door, recoiled from the cool air, and turned around to get one, but first he offered this.

“What if no one else at the bus stop is wearing a jacket?”

“I doubt that will be the case,” I answered firmly.

“I’ll bet you — ” he said.

We went through a swift list of potential scenarios in which I would pay him this, and he would pay me that, astounding in their complexity. (This was before coffee, you see.)

Finally, I said, “I’ll tell you what. I will give you a quarter if no one else at the bus stop is wearing a jacket.”

He considered the offer, eyes lit up, taking in that there was no risk on his part since we weren’t actually engaging in a bet he could lose, exactly. He agreed and left for the bus stop with the other parent on the premises.

school busNo sooner had they turned the corner than he saw a child in a jacket.

Ever hopeful, he declared, “I guess that means I only get 20 cents.”

With each child spied in a jacket, the amount decreased in the mind of this amazingly shrewd third grader, prepared to cut a deal with me later despite the solid nature of my proffer.

When he reached Negative 10 cents, there was a moment of despair, but as soon as he saw one child without a jacket, he bounced back and said, “That’s 5 cents for me.”

His mother may have shaken her head, but she knew as well as he did that a shrewd third grader could probably have gotten me to pay the 5 cents, if only the child in question hadn’t been shivering, his arms drawn inside his insufficient shirt.


I’m not preaching this week, but if I were, I imagine this little tale would be weaving itself around the Parable of the Dishonest or Shrewd Manager, Luke 16:1-13.

If I Were Preaching, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sabbath

Something(s) At Which I Do Not Excel

Something at which I do not excel is resting.

This is a pity, since on the four point plan for people who have Rheumatoid Arthritis, #1 is Rest. The other three are Exercise, Medication and Positive Attitude. You really can't do #2 if you're having symptoms, or rather I can't if I'm having the symptoms I'm having right this minute, which seem to be particularly focused on my right knee and the ball of my right foot.

This leads me to another thing at which I do not excel, which is admitting it when the RA is getting the better of me. Truly, I've been very fortunate since the whole thing began in the spring of 2008, because ever since I got on medication, I've felt mostly pretty good and rarely has the disease caused significant, well, dis-ease. The summer of 2008 was tough, as I tried to adjust to the medication (see #3) and attempted to cultivate a positive attitude (#4) in the midst of all the fears natural to a person learning she has a chronic illness. 

But after a summer season of job searching and various stresses, my joints felt pretty craptastic, and I have been doing my utmost to rest this week. 

To achieve that I have to turn it into a Type A challenge. It's not enough to simply collapse into a little heap, as I like to say, but I must also declare it to be Heap Week. And then count off the days. And hold myself to a schedule of being mostly unscheduled. 

Something at which I do not excel is resting.

Maybe it's due to the influences of verses like these:

"Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." (Luke 12:35-40, NRSV, part of this week's gospel lesson)

Really, wouldn't they be inclined to make you hyper-vigilant? 

I said from the beginning that I feared having to sit quietly under a tree, just smelling the flowers, and I have been lucky, since that's my fear, that I've mostly been able to keep going, with a few modifications to my lifestyle. I've had to give up my love affair with the fourteen hour day. 

Yes, I really just wrote that. Those were my favorites, the days that began super early and went on well into the evening. Did they make me feel important? Necessary? Alive? I just know I thought I was thriving on them. 

But they're gone as a regular feature in my life, and I suspect that actually makes me a person who is more ready rather than less. 

I hope so.

Even though resting is something at which I do not excel.

Call, If I Were Preaching

A Large Spread Sheet Out

Peter's Vision
This morning, reading something before my eyes opened fully, I read a phrase about tomorrow's Acts passage referring to a "large sheet spread out" before us. 

The text is Peter's dream, his vision or trance about a sheet being lowered from heaven covered with all sorts of animals. I love the story, but this week was the first time I looked at art portraying the sheet. Until now the image resided only in my mind. 

Now I've seen this, and I've mused on the friendly faces of the stained glass animals. I've thought about the rules we set up for our communities and our own lives and the way they may structure us out of love.

It's an old story–I've told it before, I feel sure–that I once sat with the family of my friend, Paige, excited to be sitting with someone other than my people while "home" from Northern Virginia and going to church at Court Street Baptist in Portsmouth, the church of my mother, and my mother's mother and her mother, too. It's my first memory of the Communion trays being passed, and I watch what everyone does as it comes toward us down the long, curved pews in that dark, beautiful sanctuary. I watch what everyone does, and I practice in my mind how I will pick up the little piece of bread, although I don't know what it's for, exactly. 

I did not excel at paying attention to the soft-spoken minister.

The tray came closer and I lifted my hand and suddenly Paige hissed, "Noooo!!!!!!!" I looked at her surprised, and more than surprised, humiliated, as she continued, "That's not for us!"

I'm not sure how long it was before I realized it was not our age that excluded us, but our lack of the key to inclusion in that community, baptism. 

As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.'  But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. (Acts 11:6-10, NRSV)

Peters-vision-doug-jaques I guess this image speaks more of trance, of triune recognition, of an altered mind.

We've been watching Lost, and last night I saw some of the recent episodes for a second time. There's a scene from "Happily Ever After" that shows flash-sideways Desmond and Charlie sitting in a bar, and they have this exchange.

CHARLIE: Well, cheers then. Tell me perky, are you happy?


CHARLIE: No you're not.

DESMOND: Well, I've got a great job, lots of money, get to travel the world. Why wouldn't I be happy?

CHARLIE: Have you ever been in love?

DESMOND: Thousands of times.

CHARLIE: That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about spectacular, consciousness-altering love. Do you know what that looks like?

DESMOND: I wasn't aware that love looked like anything.

CHARLIE: I've seen it, mate. On the plane back from Sydney.

DESMOND: Is that so? Well we were on the same flight, so…maybe I saw it too.

CHARLIE: Trust me, you didn't.

Peter's vision altered his consciousness. It altered his mind and his heart, and he came to understand that this love Jesus instructed the disciples to show for one another (see the companion reading in John 13) belonged to more than just the people the rules tell us to love. 

'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'

When I was in seminary, I made a lot of rules for myself, about how to balance my call to God and my call to being a mother. I spent a lot of time condemning myself for having ambition. That's not to say I didn't have it! I still do, though I think my sense of what would be a successful expression of my call is less about climbing a professional ladder and more about faithful use of my gifts for ministry. But it's never entirely clear, not for me. I always worry that I will reach my hand out and hear the hissed, "Noooo," this time from some cosmic voice.

That's why I'm glad to have an antidote for my anxiety in the person of Peter, the beautiful example of how many times we can course correct on the faith journey.

When I read the quoted line above this morning, this is how I saw it:

"A large Spreadsheet out" before us.

My current search, wider than any I've undertaken before, is recorded on a spreadsheet. It's columns describing when I sent my profile and when I received one from a church and when there was a phone call, all attempting to organize what really cannot be organized. When the connection is the right one, there will be love and certainty, and the bread will be shared by all.

If I Were Preaching

The rocks and stones themselves

I found this on YouTube, and honestly, I have no idea when this production was filmed, and it's a little weird, but somehow and nevertheless I found it captivating. The key for me is at 1:12, the rendering of the best verse ever:

"I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." Luke 19:40, NRSV

I haven't preached this favorite text yet. The first two times in my ministry Luke came around in the lectionary, I arranged a dramatic reading of the Palm and Passion story much like the one we'll do on Thursday night at Y1P. This year my colleague is preaching, so I don't have the impetus to put the swimming thoughts together into a whole.

But it occurs to me this year that in a moment of panentheism, Jesus might just be suggesting that all of Creation is so suffused with God that if people can't see it, Creation will sing the song for them, because he is God and he is with them.

And with us.

Happy Palm Sunday!

Church Life, If I Were Preaching

Whither church?

Yoda stone  I picked LP up after school today and we drove to the dry cleaner, then drove on to Evergreen Cemetery to take Sam for a walk. 

We saw a newish grave marker there with an image of Yoda, practically "life" size Yoda, on it.

On the way home we drove past a Baptist church that has, for the most part, closed its doors. I used to go there for meetings of an ecumenical board. I liked the administrator a lot. I worked with the pastor to try and help keep the Protestant chaplaincy board going. The church is right down the street from my first call, Small Church, a church I left because they had no endowment to draw down the way the Baptist church would do for him.

He is gone now. The church looks abandoned. I found their blog and learned they will have a prayer service soon and are planning an Easter service. But they admit that they don't know where they're going, if anywhere. 

Are those Baptists now in exile? How will they sing the Lord's song?

I don't know. 

I'm not sure how solid the UCC churches in my small city are. I mean, I have some suspicions and a modest amount of information, but no real clear sense. I'm not reading the financials, even for the one where I hold membership. I just know there are difficulties all around. Four UCC churches, do we really need them? 

The Baptist church in such difficulties stood up for the most liberal Baptist church in the area when their Association wanted to boot them for being open to LGBT people. The Baptist church in difficulties threatened to leave if Most Liberal Church lost standing. They took a congregational vote to stand with their brothers and sisters in Christ. I thought that was pretty awesome. Baptists all used to be about local autonomy, and I am one of theirs, originally. They stood up for a principle.

And this is their "reward," running out of money, closing their doors, mostly. 

It might be the tendency of someone on the other side of that issue to make the case that they are being punished, that God is letting this happen because of their stance, some crap like that. There were people who felt that way about the Galileans and the people at Siloam, too. 

But the truth is we live in a world where the religious symbol on a grave marker is Yoda, where the hot topic is Chat Roulette, where things are both getting better and getting worse at a pace so frenzied it's hard to know where to look next. 

Jesus gives us a fig tree to ponder. He slows us way down, has us stop thinking about the headlines or the rumors and asks us to consider something that seems mysterious, puzzling, even pointless–a fig tree that is not producing. I've preached that story twice, or rather I mined the first sermon to get the second after spending the week ill with the flu. But I remember doing the homework to try and understand the parable, to get clear about what in the world Jesus might be getting at. Oh, I'm guessing we are the non-producing trees. That seems apt enough. We're disappointing by our very nature, to ourselves and others.

Do we have another year, to spread manure around, to try and grow something nourishing, something that makes people want to come near and experience us?

It's on my mind tonight.

***This is not the Yoda stone we saw. I would have taken a picture, but since the family had left Valentine's tributes, it felt intrusive. This Yoda was on the Internet already.

Faith, Generation Hug, If I Were Preaching, Mothering

Loving Ferociously

At Confirmation class the other night, we did an exercise called Spiritual Gifts Bingo. I'm not sure I ever understood the rules as laid down in the teacher's book–my co-teacher has taught this for so many years, I get to skate on some of those details–but what we did in practice was go around and suggest to one another which of the gifts listed the person might have, and if they agreed they put their initials in the appropriate square.

I loved seeing the reactions of the students when I suggested to them they were "fair" or "empowered others," the smiles that crossed their faces in surprise or appreciation. I liked the things they thought I might be: "caring leader," which I accepted, and "patient," which I did not. Sometimes I'm patient…but not always. I'm quite patient with them, but generally not at all patient with myself.

And I wonder if these aren't things so programmed into us from early life that they are nearly impossible to change, at the same time I would, no doubt patiently, encourage the Confirmands that our faith is all about the possibility of transformation.

A long time ago, so long ago it seems like another life, I moved to Maine and started attending a church where they used Inclusive Language for God. What that meant most of the time was leaving out the masculine pronouns. We still sang from the very old-fashioned Pilgrim Hymnal (which I love in many ways), but our Doxology spoke of Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost rather than Father and Son. Coming from a Baptist background, I didn't have much experience with liturgy, so that part didn't throw me. 

But later, later, I realized there were people around me thinking of Goddess rather than God, of Mother rather than Father, and I had to grapple with my understanding of God. It was the beginning of a long period of transformation, a spiritual turning point with no apparent destination at the moment the turn began. I came to love the idea of God as Mother, and eventually I moved onto a place where I could see both masculine and feminine characteristics in the First Person of the Trinity, but to have neither of them feel very important to me.

Jesus, however, remained a guy.

George_HenWithChicks_Large  Today I talked with a group of women about the feminine image of God in tomorrow's gospel lesson, when Jesus speaks of feeling like a mother hen, wishing to gather her chicks beneath her outspread wings. I shared a Barbara Brown Taylor piece from the Christian Century that pointed up how brave the hen is as she defends her young with nothing but her body. She has no weapons to use against the predators. She puts herself in the way to give the little ones a chance to escape. 

I struggle when I hear of the triumphal theology that some contemporary Christians have, the kind that says Jesus is the buff defeater of evil. 

No. His wings are spread, his chest exposed, his life given vulnerably, going down without a fight. 

It's a ferocious love, that willingness to sacrifice yourself, to be hurt yourself.

At the end of our session this morning, I asked the group, and I'm asking myself, to look around us this week and see who or what needs our ferocious love? Now, I'm not suggesting we can be Jesus. We can't. Everyone in the room identified with that image of the protective mother, of doing that protecting, and I'm pretty there's a place for us to employ it.

But I'm not sure I've ever been on the receiving end of such love in this life.

And in a phase when I am quite impatient with myself, I wonder if I don't need to show it to me, to fend off my own predatory perfectionism, to own my vulnerability as a shield instead of a weakness.